In a newly published report on “Global Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and Cocaine Use” from the World Health Organization’s series of Mental Health Surveys, Americans’ levels of cocaine and marijuana use were highest among the 17 countries on six different continents surveyed. Researchers found that 16.2% of U.S. survey respondents had at least tried cocaine in their lifetime; New Zealanders were next at 4.3%. Kiwis caught up with their American counterparts in cannabis use, however: in both countries, 42% of the population sample had tried marijuana.

According to the report, global drug use “is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones.” For example, in the Netherlands, a country whose drug policies are quite liberal compared to those in the U.S., only 19.8% of people reported cannabis use and a mere 1.9% had tried cocaine.

Researchers did find sex differences — males were more likely to have used drugs than females — but the gap appears to be closing.

These results are nothing to sneeze at, considering the hefty sample size of 85,052 people. Still, the 16% rate of cocaine use sounds awfully high to me, although the latest (2006) results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health name a rate of 14.3% for lifetime use across all ages.

All this makes me wonder: what might contribute to such high rates of drug use in the U.S., if drug policies are not necessarily a factor? Is it a question of “forbidden fruit”, perhaps, where overly stringent drug policies somehow make drugs more attractive?

What do you think?

For more information: The Of Two Minds blog has a good post up summarizing the main findings, as does eurekalert.org; read the entire study here.